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Culture & the Family

Ray Carter | June 25, 2024

Research shows marriage crucial to societal thriving

Ray Carter

“Deaths of despair” have been on the rise in recent years, along with drug and alcohol abuse. A growing share of the population believes the American Dream is out of reach. And the share of Americans who say they are happy with their lives has been on the decline for several decades.

Those trends are often blamed on factors such as economic inequality, failing schools, or racial issues. But Brad Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, said those factors are not the true cause.

“The biggest issue here driving a lot of our biggest problems in the country is America’s retreat from marriage,” Wilcox said.

Wilcox, author of Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization, discussed how the state of marriage has impacts far outside the home of specific couples during a June 24 appearance in Oklahoma City as part of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs’ speaker series.

In 1970, among those aged 15 and up, there were 85.9 newly married people per 100,000 population in the United States. That figure has since fallen to 30.5 people per 100,000 today, a decline of 65 percent.

In the past, about 70 percent of adults were married. Today, roughly one in two adults are married, and it’s estimated that one in three people now in their 20s will never marry, Wilcox said.

Roughly one in two children are raised outside of an intact, married biological family at some point in their childhood, although a slight improvement in that trend has occurred in recent years.

But those children can benefit when exposed to other families where the parents are in a stable marriage, research shows.

“Poor kids who are growing up in communities with lots of two-parent families were much more likely to rise,” Wilcox said.

But even that exposure is more limited than in the past, depending on where a child is raised.

“Kids who are being raised in communities with lots of single-parent families like, for instance, the Atlanta metro area, were much more likely to be kind of stuck in poverty as they moved into adulthood,” Wilcox said. “So these kinds of studies kind of tell us that what happens in our own homes matters not just for the adults and the kids in our homes, but for our neighborhoods and for our communities and then for our country at large.”

Marriage outcomes have ripple effects that impact individuals’ financial stability and general happiness, Wilcox noted.

Popular culture has emphasized a “Midas mindset” in recent years that prioritizes work, money, and freedom from family obligations, Wilcox said. That view is common on the political left but is also being espoused by some on the political right, he noted.

But research shows those views do not align with reality.

“It’s still the case in 2024 that American men and women who get and stay married are doing much better both financially, on average, and also emotionally,” Wilcox said.

The net impact of many “green” policies has been to eliminate working-class jobs. And when a man loses employment, there is a 33 percent increase in the likelihood of divorce.

Women and men who are in stable marriages have about 10 times the assets their single counterparts do when both groups reach their 50s. Married mothers and married fathers also report being happy during their midlife years at roughly twice the rate of their single-and-childless counterparts.

Brookings Institution economist Jonathan Rothwell has found that marriage rates have a strong, negative correlation with deaths of despair, meaning those who are married are far less likely to become suicidal. Rothwell’s research showed that marriage rates are more important than college attainment, age, or race in predicting deaths of despair.

Wilcox noted that elite culture prioritizes choice over commitment, the new over tradition, and “me” over “we.”  Elite opinion also attacks religious faith as an obstacle to forging a flourishing family.

But Wilcox noted that religious faith is correlated with long-term family stability. Research shows that religiously devout people are among the four groups in the United States excelling at marriage. Those four groups are Asian Americans, conservatives, the faithful, and “strivers.”

“For most Americans, faith tends to reinforce stronger marriages, rather than vice versa,” Wilcox said.

While many Americans agree that an increase in stable marriages and intact families would be a net societal benefit, many struggle with the question of how to encourage those trends.

While much of that work must be done through churches, civic organizations, and family networks, Wilcox said there are areas where policymakers can provide assistance—in some cases by simply ending practices that discourage marriage.

Some government policies have contributed to negative trends in family formation and stability, Wilcox said, noting that both tax policy and benefit programs often penalize those who get married.

Trade policy has destroyed many working-class jobs in the United States that allowed an adult to support a family. The same thing has occurred with the government's push to create green-energy jobs and eliminate fossil-fuel industries. The net impact of many “green” policies has been to eliminate working-class jobs. And when a man loses employment, there is a 33 percent increase in the likelihood of divorce, Wilcox noted.

On the positive side, Wilcox said state governments can aid family formation in several ways. One is to require that schools teach children the “success sequence.” Researchers have found that people who do three basic things—graduate high school, get a full-time job or enter college, and marry before they have children—almost always avoid poverty as adults and are able to provide for themselves and their families.

“It’s still the case that education, work, and marriage are the three foundations of a strong launch into adult economic life,” Wilcox said.

He said state agencies should also include data on family structure in outcome reports that currently focus mostly on things like race and poverty.

Wilcox said state governments can also enact property-tax relief for families with children in the household.

And states can fund relationship education programs, such as the marriage initiative launched in Oklahoma during the tenure of former Gov. Frank Keating, who served from 1995 to 2003. Researchers found a three percent increase in kids living with parents in Oklahoma as a result of the marriage initiative, Wilcox said.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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